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Happy Birthday, Amelia Earhart

Amelia Mary Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1897. Just the 16th woman to be issued a pilot’s license, Amelia Earhart would be 119 years old today if she had survived her around the world flight in 1937.

While Earhart is best known for being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and to perish while attempting to fly around the world along the equator, there was much more to her life. She was an inspiration to women and a pioneer in the aviation world.

After graduating high school in Chicago, Amelia spent a Christmas vacation in Toronto and observed wounded WW I soldiers returning from Europe.  Inspired to help, she volunteered as a nurses aid in the Red Cross, helping take care of wounded WW I pilots.  This would lead her to enroll in the medical studies program at Columbia University in New York.  However, after her first year at Columbia, she would quit college and move to California to be with her parents.

Kinner Airster biplane, the first airplane owned by Amelia Earhart.

Kinner Airster biplane, the first airplane owned by Amelia Earhart. From http://www.rcgroups.com/forums/showthread.php?t=2132090

In 1920, Earhart’s life would change and her future would start to be molded.  After a 10-minute plane ride at the Long Beach Air Show, she became enthralled with flying.  She took odd jobs, including work as a photographer and a truck driver, to pay for flying lessons from noted female pilot Anita Snook. Just one year later in 1921 she bought her first airplane, a bright yellow Kinner Airster biplane, naming it “The Canary.”

Earhart was determined to make a name for herself and in October 1922 she flew her biplane to an altitude of 14,000 feet, setting a world record for female pilots. In May 1923, she became the 16th woman in the world to be issued a pilot’s license by The Federation Aeronautique, which was the worldwide governing body for aeronautics at the time.

When she ran out of money in 1924, she sold The Canary and worked as a schoolteacher and social worker until 1927 when she joined the Boston Chapter of the American Aeronautical Society. She invested a small amount of her savings into the Dennison Airport in Boston, where she worked as a sales representative for Kinner airplanes.

After she began writing articles to promote flying for a local newspaper, she began to attain some local celebrity status in the Boston area. In May, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic and a year later, Captain Hilton H. Railey, a noted pilot, asked Earhart if she would like to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. She said yes, only to find out that it would be as a passenger, not as a pilot or co-pilot. After completing the trans-Atlantic flight as a passenger on June 17, 1928, Earhart would say that she felt like a piece of baggage on the plane, but that someday later she would try it on her own.

Author George Putnam, whom Earhart would later marry, wrote the book 20 hrs., 40 mins in 1928, heavily promoting Amelia’s trans-Atlantic voyage and launching her to celebrity status. She was soon working for Transcontinental Air Transport, which would later become Trans World Airlines (TWA). She would then go on to become a vice president of National Airways, a new airline that flew routes in the northeast.

However, Amelia was not content with being a passenger and doing administrative work. She longed to fly and in 1929, she took to the air again, entering and finishing third in the first Santa Monica-to-Cleveland Woman’s Air Derby race.  In 1931, she set an altitude record of 18,415 feet. In 1930, she would become the first President of the Ninety-Nines, a professional organization of women pilots.

On May 20, 1932, the fifth anniversary of Charles Lindberg’s flight, Earhart took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. Enduring bad weather and flight problems, she landed in Northern Ireland, becoming the first woman to fly solo, nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean.

That flight gained her many honors. She was awarded the National Geographic Society Gold Medal, the French Cross of the Knight of the Legion of Honor and the US Congressional Distinguished Flying Cross.  She also went on to set other records and complete many more “first flights” across the Pacific, the United States and Mexico.  She earned a total of seven speed and distance records between 1930 – 1935.

Amelia Earhart Lockheed Electra Airplane

Amelia Earhart next to her Lockheed Electra 10E airplane, circa 1936. From http://www.aviation-history.com/airmen/earhart-6a.jpg

In 1935, Amelia joined the faculty at Purdue University as a female career consultant and an advisor to the Department of Aeronautics. Her salary from Purdue allowed her to purchase a Lockheed Electra L-10E airplane and she began planning for her next record attempt: flying around the world along the equator, which is the longest distance to traverse the globe. Others had flown around the world, but had done it further north and on a significantly shorter route.

Her first attempt in March 1937 ended after the first leg, from California to Hawaii. While taking off in Hawaii, she blew a tire and her plane wrecked, causing heavy damage and requiring the plane to be shipped back to California for major repairs.  Just over two months later, on June 1, Amelia Earhart and Paul Noonan left Miami, Florida, flying east. Twenty-nine days and 22,000 miles later, they would land in New Guinea.

Earhart would become sick with dysentery for days while on New Guinea and finally, on July 2, 1937, Earhart and Noonan took off and headed toward a very tiny sliver of land 2,256 miles away, called Howland Island. Carrying extra fuel and ditching items deemed unnecessary while flying over the ocean, including parachutes, Earhart and Noonan had put together what they thought was a foolproof plan to ensure they reached Howland Island.  July 3, 1937 at 8:43 a.m. would be the last time anyone heard from Earhart, as she sent a radio message that they were flying north and south along the longitude of Howland Island, searching for their landing zone.

While dozens of theories have been proposed about Earhart’s disappearance, the fact remains that Amelia Earhart was a pioneer for both women and the field of aviation. She was known for being an able pilot who never lost her nerve or panicked. She set records, rose rapidly in a field dominated by men, and died doing what she loved.

For all 40 years of her life, Amelia Earhart was well Ahead of the Curve.

 

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